Written for the Oncology Memoir Group reading, Nov. 2013Indian Pudding is dark and rich, all molasses and cornmeal and raisins. Although it's out of fashion today, when I was in grade school, Indian Pudding was a New England Thanksgiving favorite. I ...

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  1. Indian Pudding
  2. 50 Years Ago: MLK and the march
  3. Cancer Status: August 31, 2013
  4. The Capacity to Heal
  5. Scan Anxiety
  6. More Recent Articles

Indian Pudding

Written for the Oncology Memoir Group reading, Nov. 2013
Indian Pudding is dark and rich, all molasses and cornmeal and raisins. Although it's out of fashion today, when I was in grade school, Indian Pudding was a New England Thanksgiving favorite.  I lived on the north shore of Massachusetts surrounded by colonial history.  As a kid, when someone said "Indian Pudding" in my mind's eye I saw an Indian—or native American today-  standing among the trees with dark braided hair and one feather hanging down the braid. I'd never seen an Indian in the flesh, but I'd seen plenty of images of pilgrims and Indians sharing a Norman Rockwell meal. -- A long table under the trees. half-dressed  Indians  despite the November temperatures. Pilgrims in black with white collars, cuffs and aprons, and several big fat supermarket turkeys  on platters surrounded by vegetables arrayed down the middle of the table. I'm sure there was Indian Pudding on that table, too.

I'd never eaten Indian pudding. I'd never even seen it served. I only imagined it. Why wasn't Indian Pudding one of our family traditions? True, my father was a only a first generation Finn, but my mother was a DAR-eligible WASP. Her mother was about as genuine a New Englander as one could get, except for her divorce during the depression when her husband's company sent him to St. Louis to work and he fell in love with a woman there. But that's a whole other story. Anyway, Indian Pudding was a real new England tradition but I had no idea what it tasted like. 

It never occurred to me to ask my mother why we didn't have Indian Pudding  on Thanksgiving or any other day. I just knew it should be served warm with vanilla ice cream melting over it. It would be delicious and I felt deprived. I loved our family's Boston Cookies and apple pie made with Macs from the orchard on the hill where my father lived as a child. And, I'd even have a little bit of squash pie, which was pretty daring for the finicky eater I was then. In reality, I wasn't deprived of either desserts or tradition but it wasn't good enough for me. 

Years later, when I was a young hippie living in a small Cambridge communal house, I was going to spend the holiday with the family for the first Thanksgiving in some years. The dinner was planned for my parents’ log cabin on a quiet pond in New Hampshire. Yes, a great New England Thanksgiving setting.

What should I bring? AHA! Indian Pudding. I'd make traditional Indian Pudding as a surprise. I'd still never tasted it. I pulled out the Joy of Cooking, a gift from a bunch of campers and co-counselors one summer when they discovered I couldn't cook -- but that's another story.

My mother, who I was always trying, but failing, to please, wouldn't touch it. She hated even the smell of it. (You know something went wrong. Would I be writing this otherwise?) The Indian Pudding was delicious----- just as I'd imagined. Warm and rich, ice cream offsetting the molasses. I loved it, but my mother's disdain took the Joy right out it. I couldn't understand it.

I needed to know why. What's wrong with Indian Pudding I asked. She shrugged vaguely. "I served too much of it to ever want to see it, smell it, or taste it again," she said.
I didn't get it. What do you mean you served too much of it? We never had it. What did she mean?

During the depression, when she was in high school, one of her mother’s friends arranged for her to waitress at a popular and expensive restaurant in Framingham.  .
This job meant traveling for hours every weekend to get there, staying in a little room above the restaurant, and working long hours while missing her friends and their parties. Her family was dependent on her tips.

“ My father was gone,’ she said. “Gram needed the money to support us. And I was miserable. Indian Pudding was their most popular dessert. I served gallons of it every night. Gallons and gallons. I hate it. It reminds me of that terrible time in my life.
“You eat it. Enjoy it. But, she said, “please don't bring it again.”

I have never made it again, but I woke up thinking about it this week. 

What evokes these food memories? Why are they suddenly resurrected from the recesses of our brains? I still don't cook much. I no longer live in New England. But, I guess that's still who I am -- the little girl trying to find my identity through the foods I eat and the pictures evoked in my mind's eye. That Indian in the trees is still as vivid as he was fifty years ago.

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50 Years Ago: MLK and the march

I’d never seen signs like this before. “Colored Entrance” “Whites Only” Rest Rooms and drinking fountains with arrows for “Whites” and “Colored.” These signs appeared at our rest stops more frequently as we moved further south. About 30 of us were traveling by chartered bus from Boston to North Carolina for a week-long conference. We couldn’t ignore the signs; they applied to our ragtag, multiracial group of teenagers.

I was sixteen and committed to the passage of civil rights. Idealistic.  Naive.  Most of us had never been south before. We were outraged at the signs and vowed to give them none of our business. If we couldn’t all eat together we wouldn’t eat.

Boston wasn’t the most liberal of places. Earlier that spring my mother told the folks at her hairdresser’s that our family would be hosting some kids overnight for a weekend church conference. Someone asked what she would do if one of the kids assigned to us was a negro? Mother had never thought about it but answered Make them feel at home. Sure enough, Wally, one of the two boys assigned to us, was black. The spare room had a double bed which Mother had expected two girls would share. Now we had two adolescent boys – one black and one white, Mother was initially freaked. Boys didn’t share beds. The boys didn’t care. And if there were repercussions from parents or neighbors, I never heard about them.

The summer conference was at a Quaker school, Guilford College, in Greensboro, NC. Guilford had voluntarily integrated the campus the year before -- 1962, They might have been the only southern college that would host our multiracial group and shared our commitment to civil rights. They had helped us arrange a day of service with the local black hospital. Our work crews spent the day cleaning, painting, and fixing things. Somehow, I always ended up on the paint crew.

I felt like we were trying to make a silk purse from the proverbial sow’s ear. The hospital was old and the patients poor. It was depressing and overcrowded. Our one day of work was a drop in the bucket, but this trip south was teaching me about life.

Most of us planned to spend our second week in Washington DC. Word about the March on Washington was spreading.  I was excited about exploring the Smithsonian, the zoo, the pawn shops and streets of the city. But most of all, I was excited by the March on Washington taking shape on Wednesday.

The city had a magic about it. People were arriving from everywhere by bus, train, hitchhiking, walking, driving. Everyone was friendly and interested in where you were from and why you came.
I like to pretend that when you look at that picture of the reflecting pool and the mall filled with people, you can see me. I’m right there on the left side, not far from the water, sitting with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. 

The day was hot, the program long, the sky perfectly blue.  Every celebrity and politician was introduced and it seemed like there were hundreds of them. Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary broke up the   speeches. ‘We shall overcome’ echoed throughout the city.

It was an amazing, peaceful day that changed many of our lives. Malcolm X, may have criticized the march, describing it as "a picnic" and "a circus".and, it was that. But that’s not bad. Fifty years later it’s still one of the most memorable days of my life. I listen to the MLK speech every year with mixed emotions and lots of tears. So much has changed for us all since 1963, But not enough
August 29, 2013

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Cancer Status: August 31, 2013

 I had a brain scan two weeks ago and got the results this Friday. My anxiety grew as Friday approached.. I was sure my health was deteriorating and bad news was on the way. That just goes to show how out of touch I am with my body.

Things either haven't changed or they are better. My lab values are good; tumor markers continue to improve. Physical exam revealed that the tumors are shrinking. My ankle and shoulder have healed. Many days it's hard to believe I'm so fortunate when NPR radio is broadcasting the deaths or hundreds and sometimes thousands.

Ruth's new body image
The only area of concern is my weight. I've lost too much. For those of you who have known me for a long time, this may be hard for you to imagine and it is a mixed blessing for me. I've lost a lot - I've given away many of my clothes gathered from years spent combing thru Good Will and the Salvation Army. I couldn't keep my pants up any more.  My jacket shoulders droop to my elbows. My shirts are like tents and my arms are like sticks. There's no apparent reason for the loss. My appetite is good. I'm not depressed. All my markers are good.

The next step is to check my thyroid. I'll get the lab work done next week. Meanwhile, I've added additional carbs to my diet. That's tricky to do while avoiding sugar, but it sure is fun!

The MD also shared his pessimism about me ever driving again. He knows what a loss this is for me. I ask him about  it every time I see him. I'll probably keep asking him, too.

But I'm relieved and grateful to be doing so well. I hope you are doing well, too, and look forward to your news.

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The Capacity to Heal

Yesterday I was liberated from my boot...the one that has protected and bullied my fractured ankle these past many weeks. The physician's assistant said both the shoulder and ankle were healing very well. The ordeal isn't quite over, though.

My leg has shriveled up from lack of use and it will take several weeks to get my muscles, ligaments, and tendons back to par. And several to match my pre-fracture half-hour on the treadmill. But, I am liberated. I hope to regain my independence on the stairs, soon. Glenn has been so gracious about running upstairs to get this  or that but I'd like to do it myself.

"Look at it this way," Glenn said on the way home. "At least you know now that you can still heal."

He's right. It did give me a boost to my confidence. Even these films  which have nothing to do with my cancer provoked anxiety. It was great to pass with flying colors.

Speaking of colors-- I just finished my second watercolor.(above) It's a copy of an Edward Hopper lighthouse painting. I'm including a copy for my brother Pete.  How does it compare to mother's painting?  OK, so the lighthouse may keel over. Not bad for my second effort.
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Scan Anxiety

MRI machine at Seaside Imaging Center
MRI machine at Seaside Imaging Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've had another round of scans -- bone scan, pet scan, CT scan, angiography -- and then, just to mix things up a bit, I fell down a few stairs fracturing my ankle and shoulder. It was hard to take all this in stride. My fears got the best of me. I imagined the worst.

I gather that most people with metastases imagine the worst every time they schedule their scans. If they don't, their denial reflexes must work out at the gym every day.

Everything but the fractures turned out fine. For the time being I'm hobbling around with a hard boot and a sling, some pain, no treadmill, and new bars on the toilet so I can get up and down. One of my docs said he'd write me a prescription that said " Be more careful, Ruth." And how well could I  manage without Glenn to literally lend me a hand to get in and out of chairs and the car?

Between the cancer and my broken leg I have had plenty of time to do nothing but try to keep my anxiety under control. Writing helps, so here goes.

I broke my leg skiing when I was a junior in high school. Time and treatments sure have  changed. That year I spent four months in a plaster cast from my toes to my hip.  But I was young and not one to complain. Well, I didn't think of all that whining as complaining.

I spent the first week in the hospital. The doctor told me that  my discharge would depend on Friday's x-rays.  If the bones weren't set right he'd have to break and re-set them again. At least that's what I thought he said. Re-break my leg? That scared me silly AND there was a party I didn't want t miss Friday night. I guess I did complain.

The hospital was so full  they put me in a private room on the men's floor. (Yes, just like the help wanted ads, the wards were segregated by gender  then.) Every day a little Italian man walked the corridor in his johnny and slippers. Initially he ignored me--wouldn't even make eye contact as he passed my door-- but with each day that passed he became more chatty until he finally came right in and made himself at home. He wanted me to know all the things a young  girl with a broken leg would have to endure. It was quite an assortment of things.

Most distressing was his prediction that my leg would hurt for the rest of my life whenever the wind blew in the same direction it was blowing when I fell and heard that terrible crack.

Another fond memory of that spring hobbling around with cast and crutches was Stephen's high  school graduation. He was  my new boyfriend and graduating from a a proper New England prep school. He cared about what others thought of him and he wanted me, as an extension of him, to impress.

 I had a new chic yellow sheath dress  to wear to the graduation, which would be my first event without plaster. But In those days  people  autographed your cast and mine looked pretty grungy.  You know, roses are red, etc. But, the cast was scheduled to come off the week before his graduation.  I thought, let's give this blasted cast a royal send-off.  I invited friends to forsake their ballpoint pen quips, grab magic markers and go to it. My last week encased in plaster would be glorious.

Surprise, surprise. That same doctor let me down. The cast didn't come off as expected  It would stay for at least one more week of sponge baths, manipulating knitting needles inside the cast to scratch that incessant itching, and now wearing a cast that flaunted flowers, serpents, animals, dirt from four months of traipsing through the streets, off-color rhymes and crumbling plaster around the toes.   At graduation I looked lovely if you ignored my cast. I looked like tthe advent of the sixties if you ignored my lovely but  conservative dress. But, I must admit, either way we made a striking couple.

Last week while I waited and called and waited some morefor the results of my scans I thought about those adolescent years, chuckled at the memories and reflected on the changes. The heavy black plastic holding my ankle in place resists cast graffiti and comes off for a shower. The fall has complicated my life for the short term. But here's what I've learned in the intervening years:

  • That little Italian man was wrong. My leg doesn't hurt when the wind blows
  • No one at Stephen's graduation cared about the hippie-esque cast
  • The man you're with will always cares about how you look
  • This cancer and the fall/break are unrelated
So, given the circumstances I'm doing fine. I hope you're doing fine, too.

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